North Korea released this image of a test-fire of a submarine-launched ballistic missile in an undisclosed location. Photo: AFP via KCNA/KNS
North Korea released this image of a test-fire of a submarine-launched ballistic missile in an undisclosed location. Photo: AFP via KCNA/KNS

North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile over the Sea of Japan on February 12 came about a week after the US successfully destroyed the same type of intermediate range ballistic missile in a test off Hawaii.

The interceptor that took out the land-launched missile was fired from the USS John Paul Jones destroyer on February 3 in the first test of the device, known as the new Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA.  It was developed by Raytheon Co. of the US and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan under the US Missile Defence Agency.

“The SM-3 Block IIA program continues to reflect MDA’s commitment to maturing this regional ballistic missile defense capability for the defense of our nation, its deployed forces and our allies abroad,” said Dr. Taylor W. Lawrence, Raytheon Missile Systems president, in a press release. “This test success keeps the program on track for deployment at sea and ashore in the 2018 timeframe.”

Despite the larger size and greater capability of the SM-3 Block IIA , no modifications are necessary for the interceptor to be loaded into any existing vertical launch system now aboard a large number of U.S. and Japanese AEGIS-class destroyers and cruisers.

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This sets the stage for U.S., Japanese, and South Korean warships to carry additional firepower to complement land-based missile intercept systems, including the land-based Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).

It was recently announced that THAAD will be deployed in East Asia, including South Korea, a move that has drawn irritation from North Korea and China.

With the success of the Hawaii test, the Asian missile defense game has heated up considerably and deployment of the SM-3 Block IIA will add to the irritation.  It’s impossible to say how many missile interceptors are already mounted aboard U.S. warships in the region, but it could be several hundred.


Putting land-based variants of the SM-3 is also an option. This has already happened in Romania.

Missile defense development is growing in intensity elsewhere.

Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system on February 8 intercepted three of four rockets fired at Eliat city and the country is rolling out other anti-missile and anti-rocket systems to deal with other threats, including from Iran.  In September 2016, Iron Dome intercepted a rocket fired at Israel from Syria for the first time.

Moshe Patel who heads the Israel Missile Defense Organization told Defense News on January 18 that the country had entered what he calls the “Arrow 3 era” to extend the range of Israel’s Arrow 2 missile interceptors.

Then about a week later, Israel’s latest version of its David’s Sling had its fifth successful test. David’s Sling is a missile defense system designed to protect against large-caliber rockets, and short-range ballistic missiles and other threats.  Here again, Raytheon serves a subcontractor with Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems as the lead contractor.

There is a possible thread running through these various missile development projects.

Iran’s Fars News Agency reported on February 4 — a week before the North Korean missile launch — that a warning to US forces based in Bahrain was issued by Mojtaba Zonour, a former advisor to the Iranian Supreme Leader’s Representative at the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC).

“The US (Navy’s) Fifth Fleet has occupied a part of Bahrain, and the enemy’s farthest military base is in the Indian Ocean, but these points are all within the range of Iran’s missile systems and they will be razed to the ground if the enemy makes a mistake,” Zonour said, according to the report.

“And only 7 minutes is needed for the Iranian missile to hit Tel Aviv,” added Zonour, who now serves as a senior member of Iran’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission.

Iran also tested a medium-range ballistic missile on January 29, which the country insisted did not violate the UN Security Council resolution in 2015 to prevent the country developing a nuclear weapon.

However, the German newspaper Die Welt appears to be the only news outlet to detect and report a possible simultaneous firing of a nuclear-capable cruise missile by the Iranians.

The firing of the Sumar cruise missile should have triggered an even stronger admonishment from US President Donald Trump’s national security advisor Michael Flynn who put the Iranians “on notice” as a result of their January ballistic missile test.

Iran’s low-flying and increasingly stealthy cruise missiles represent a serious threat to U.S. warships patrolling the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz in particular.

“We are working day and night to protect Iran’s security. If we see smallest misstep from the enemies, our roaring missiles will fall on their heads,” head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ aerospace unit, Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh was quoted as saying by Tasnim news agency.

In so many words, this is the message the U.S. and its allies, Israel and Japan, are sending to their potential adversaries as well.

The nuclear and missile ambitions of North Korea's Kim Jong Un
The nuclear and missile ambitions of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un

Hence, in 2017 in different regions of military tension, steady progress has been made in building the so-called 4-layer missile defense capable of defeating close in, short, medium and long-range missiles and rockets.

Japan is proceeding down the same path as Israel in terms of deploying a battle-ready, joint multi-layer missile defense capability.

Another iron in the fire includes the USS Zumwalt, the largest destroyer ever built by the US Navy which arrived in San Diego in December and may soon pay a visit to South Korea. Two more are under construction.

The Zumwalt’s presence anywhere west of Japan and so close to North Korean waters will set off alarm bells in China and North Korea.

The ultra-sophisticated, electric-powered Zumwalt is designed to add a new dimension to the US Navy’s land attack capabilities and it isn’t equipped with existing SM-3’s let alone the SM-3 Block IIA or any other missile interceptors.  Still, that could change.

Meantime, the presence of  the Zumwalt and the recent success of the SM-3 Block IIA missile killer allows the US and its allies to send a strong message to potential adversaries. And the message is clear.

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